Jason Schmidt wasn't surprised when he came home one day during his junior year of high school and found his father, Mark, crawling around in a giant pool of blood. Things like that had been happening a lot since Mark had been diagnosed with HIV, three years earlier.
Jason's life with Mark was full of secrets—about drugs, crime, and sex. If the straights—people with normal lives—ever found out any of those secrets, the police would come. Jason's home would be torn apart. So the rule, since Jason had been in preschool, was never to tell the straights anything.
A List of Things That Didn't Kill Me is a funny, disturbing memoir full of brutal insights and unexpected wit that explores the question: How do you find your moral center in a world that doesn't seem to have one?
About the Author
Jason Schmidt was born in Oregon in 1972. He has a law degree, and he lives with his family in Seattle, Washington.
Read an Excerpt
A List of Things that Didn't Kill Me
By Jason Schmidt
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Jason Schmidt
All rights reserved.
My first memory is of riding my tricycle under a pale blue sky, down streets lined with compact houses and generous yards. I rode toward things that pleased me—the shape of a tree, the spacing of telephone poles, an arrangement of power lines above the street. I rode down the middle of the street, so cars would be able to see me.
I didn't feel worried or afraid. It was a beautiful day. I took my time. When the door of one of the houses opened and I heard my mother call, "Jason?" I smiled and waved at her.
She brought me inside. Her living room had a big picture window that faced onto the street. The curtains were drawn back, and the room was full of light. Most of the floor space was taken up by a large wooden loom, but there was a couch and a big overstuffed chair farther back in the living room, near the kitchen. There was a small square trunk next to the chair. The shape of the loom, the pedals and the rows of steel wires, reminded me of a piano. I sat on the couch while Mom called Dad on the telephone. Dad showed up a little while later, and I sensed that I was in trouble so I crawled under the loom, but nobody yelled at me. He sat down on the couch, and she sat down on the chair.
"Honestly," he said. "I didn't even know he was gone."
"That's not very comforting," she said.
Then they were quiet for a while.
"It's more than a mile, Mark," she said.
"I know," he said. He looked at me then, and I could tell he didn't know what he should say. What he should think.
They talked for a while longer, then he took me home.
It was the summer I turned three years old; the summer of 1975.
* * *
My dad and I lived in a dark brown house with a gently sloping roof, a wood-slat exterior, and windows that opened out like little doors instead of sliding up and down the way windows were supposed to. It was built in a flatter, more sprawling style than most of the other houses in town. I didn't like it. It was the only house on a dead-end street in the middle of a giant field. There were no other kids nearby. There were never any people walking on the sidewalk or playing ball out in the field. When I went outside, all I heard was wind.
The street ended a block past our house, where a heavy galvanized steel chain was stretched across the road between two metal posts. The posts were made of thick metal pipes that had been driven into the ground and filled with concrete. They were painted bright yellow, and the chain was locked in place with a bulky rubber-coated padlock. The blacktop road ended at the chain. Beyond that, it was a dirt road, covered with gravel, that went toward a large, low building in the distance.
I spent a lot of time contemplating the mystery of the posts and the chain. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to put them there, but they seemed like a poor solution to a problem that didn't really exist. If someone really wanted to go on the dirt road, all they had to do was drive into the field and go around the posts. And yet I never saw it happen.
Of course, people did dump garbage near the posts, and I never saw that happen either. So maybe the chain did serve some function, even if it was just to keep the garbage on our side of the posts. One day I went outside and found a burned-out mattress lying in our driveway. I had no idea how it had gotten there. All the cloth and stuffing had burned away, leaving nothing but the metal springs and frame, like the bones of some poorly evolved dinosaur. I climbed onto it and started bouncing as hard as I could. Cartoons had given me the idea that a really enthusiastic bounce would launch me ten or fifteen feet into the air, but I didn't seem to be able to get more than a few inches of clearance. At some point, Marianne came out and told me to be careful on that thing.
I looked back at her, as she held open the screen door that led out of the house and onto the driveway—a plump hippie with a wild mop of curly brown hair. She had a wide face with sunburned cheeks; strong nose, weak chin. She looked sleepy. She sounded sleepy; she had a scratchy voice, like someone who'd just woken up. She wore loose blue jeans and a baggy T-shirt. She didn't live with us but she was around a lot, and she seemed to want to look after me. Most of my dad's friends ignored me.
"I'll be careful," I said.
She nodded and went back inside.
Everything else I remember about that house amounts to a small collection of moments. I make guesses about when they happened, or in what order. The last memory is the only one I'm sure of.
* * *
I was hiding in my dad's closet, watching him through a crack in the door while he did something he didn't want me to see. I felt clever for catching him, but I didn't understand most of what I saw.
I tried to make up a story that would explain what he was doing, but whenever I thought I understood what was happening, he did something else that surprised me: burning silverware with a lighter; holding a hot spoon between his knees; tying a piece of rubber around his arm. No story I could come up with explained what he'd done so far, let alone anticipated what he'd do next. At some point the whole ritual reached a kind of climax and he sat there on the bed for a while, like he was doing some really deep thinking. Then he stood up and started hiding his collection of strange implements in various small wooden and metal boxes around the room; the rubber tubing went in one box, the spoon in another box, and so on.
I waited until he left the room, then snuck out of the closet and opened the last box I'd seen him touch.
I recognized the thing in the box as something that doctors used. I even had some idea what it was for, though I didn't know the word for it. It was a little plastic tube with a wire-thin needle poking out of one end. The other end had a blue plastic plunger with a rubber tip, which was used to push liquid through the needle. I didn't know what Dad had been doing with it, but I knew the pointy metal needle meant I shouldn't touch it. I closed the box and left the room.
* * *
I was in the living room. I wasn't doing anything, just sitting quietly and watching. Marianne was standing across from me. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and a black vest. The curtains on the front window were open, and there was afternoon light coming in behind her, framing her in two giant golden rectangles. The living room was cluttered, and she was making her way carefully toward the back of the house. She had one hand on the wall, like she needed help staying upright. In her other hand, she had a glass jug full of red wine. She lifted the jug to her lips and took a swig, then shivered and shook her head like the flavor had hit her wrong.
* * *
It was nighttime. I was in the living room. My dad and some of his friends were sitting around the coffee table in front of the couch. A lamp hanging down from the ceiling cast a circle of glaring white light on the glass surface of the table and made the rest of the room disappear. The adults were laughing and playing a game where they tore pages out of a magazine. The page I could see had a glossy picture of a bright blue ocean and a wide blue sky. The sky was full of hot air balloons, and the balloons were all the colors of the rainbow. The adults tore the page into strips, rolled the strips up into tubes, and used them to inhale lines of white powder off the tabletop, into their noses. Sometimes after they snorted some of the powder, one of them would rub his nose with the heel of his hand and squint his eyes. I thought it must hurt to snort that stuff.
* * *
I woke up when someone knocked on our door. Maybe it was that same night, maybe some other night. Everything was dark until someone opened the door and the porch light shone into the living room. I could see that whoever had opened the door was silhouetted against the light, peeking cautiously out to talk to someone on our porch. They spoke in quiet tones, like they didn't want to wake up the neighbors. Not that we had neighbors. After a few minutes, someone else went to the door to see what was going on. At some point another person turned on the overhead light in the living room and stepped back to open the front door wider.
There were men on the porch, and then they were coming into our house. They weren't like us. They weren't our people. The one I could see best, the one in front, wore big square glasses with brown plastic frames. He had shaggy medium-length brown hair. He was wearing denim pants and an ugly white button-down shirt with black stripes that were broken up by symbols from playing cards: diamonds, spades, hearts, and clubs. He was holding a big silver gun in his right hand, like the kind in cowboy movies, but shinier. There were a few other men behind him, similarly dressed.
One of them had a chrome-plated shotgun that he was holding in both hands—one hand on the stock, one hand on the pump—but he didn't look like he expected to do anything with it. I noticed that the wood on the grip of the pump slide was a light blond color and seemed dirty in the place where his hand rested on it. The shotguns our friends owned were all made out of dark blue metal and had dark wood grips on the pumps, or just had two short barrels side by side and big pistol grips instead of rifle stocks. I thought this man's shotgun was supposed to look cool because it was so shiny, but it really just looked like a toy. It was tacky.
There were four or five of these men. Two came into the house. The one with the tacky shotgun stood by the door. One or two more stood on the porch.
There were five or six of our people in the house; me, my dad, Marianne, and two or three men whose names I didn't know. The men with the guns were talking to our people, and our people seemed ashamed and scared and angry at the same time. They didn't want to make eye contact with the armed men. They moved like they wanted to run or fight, but they were forcing themselves to move slowly and stand still. I kept looking around, trying to understand what was happening. When I glanced back toward the door I saw police officers standing in the doorway, in blue uniforms. On TV, cops were the good guys, so I thought we were probably going to be all right.
Marianne came over and picked me up, then sat in a chair next to the front door with me in her lap. The armed men didn't seem interested in her. She sat me on her lap while the men with the guns talked to my dad and his friends, and told the police where to go. I started to get the idea that not only were the strangers cops, in spite of their plain clothes, but that they were actually the cops in charge.
The uniformed police started to make their way into the house. They walked around freely, turning on lights and looking in rooms without asking permission. I didn't know you were supposed to ask permission to walk around in someone else's house until I saw the police officers not doing it. I realized I might have been mistaken about things being okay because the police were here. Finally, I understood that something was going very wrong; it was just taking a long time to actually happen. I heard a noise, like someone dropping an armful of wood, and looked through the doorway that led into the kitchen. There was a cop in there with a long pole, tearing panels off the ceiling.
I looked at my dad. He was talking to the man with the silver pistol.
That's my only clear memory of my dad from that time: thin, medium height, with a beard and a receding hairline. Dark skin. Long, dark, wispy hair. He had a high forehead, strong cheekbones, and a large, straight nose. Some people thought he looked Arabic. He was wearing a sleeveless undershirt and a pair of bellbottoms. His wide, sensitive mouth was tight with fear and anxiety. Marianne reached up and grabbed my arms, like she thought I might try to get off her lap, but she didn't say anything. I could feel the fear in her—the tension in her leg muscles and the way she held her body perfectly rigid behind me. I kept expecting her to say something about how everything was going to be okay, but she was completely focused on the men with the guns.
Later that night, some people came to collect me. I never went back to that house again.CHAPTER 2
My dad was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1950. He had a mother and a father and two older brothers. My grandfather, John, was the son of Hungarian immigrants with a German surname. John served in the Navy during World War II, came home, and got a job operating construction cranes during the postwar West Coast building boom. My dad's mother died when Dad was in high school. My grandfather remarried to a woman named Margaret. Margaret and my father did not get along, so my father left home when he was still comparatively young. At some point, he met my mother. The two of them got married and, when my dad was twenty-two, I was born.
These are the things I can prove.
My dad, when he told me the story of his life, always framed it in terms of Leave It to Beaver. Until he was about twelve, he said, his life was just like that TV show: nuclear family, stern authoritarian father he called "sir," a politely maternal mother; clean house, big yard, meat and potatoes for dinner. All the boys had crew cuts. They wore slacks and shirts for school, suits for church, jeans and T-shirts during summer vacation. A guy in white coveralls and a flat cap delivered their milk twice a week, and candy bars cost a nickel.
Dad's mother, who had grown up during the Great Depression, used to tell her kids that they needed to appreciate everything they had—that nobody in the history of the world had ever had it this good, and probably nobody ever would again. If history had seasons, my dad and his brothers were born during the warmest, gentlest, most bountiful summer anyone had ever seen. But it wouldn't last, because it never did. When Dad talked about his childhood, he talked about it like a perfect day at the beach.
Then, in a different kind of mood, he'd talk about having been born premature. He said his parents had resigned themselves to the fact that he was going to die while he was in the hospital, and they never seemed to know what to do with him when he didn't. He said he never felt like part of that family. That he was always a runt compared to his older brothers. That he made up for it by being smarter, and that his father and his brothers resented him for it, particularly the middle brother, Paul.
"Paul used to do this thing," Dad would say. "Where he'd sit on me while he loaded his BB gun. Then he'd get off me, let me run, count to five, and start shooting. One time he got me in the knee and we had to pry the BB out with a screwdriver. I blackmailed him for everything he had, then told on him anyway. That was Paul to a T. He was the kind of guy who, if there was a piece of cake in the refrigerator and our parents told us not to eat it, not only would Paul eat it—but then he'd leave the empty plate in the refrigerator. That was the kind of stupid your uncle Paul was."
I once asked my dad's oldest brother, my uncle John, what my dad was like when he was a kid. Uncle John confirmed Dad's version of events in more ways than he probably meant to. He said Dad was extremely precocious, but that he'd always been sickly on account of being born premature.
"Like his hair," Uncle John said. "If you grabbed him by his hair, it'd just come out in your hand. In big clumps."CHAPTER 3
A lot of what happened when Dad got busted was a mystery to me, during and afterward. Years later he told me there was some kind of bureaucratic screw-up and the social worker who was handling my case sent me to Texas, where my mom's parents had recently settled. Only once I got down there, nobody knew what to do with me, so I spent one night in a foster home before being shipped to California, where I stayed with my other grandparents—John and Margaret—in Torrance, the blue-collar suburb of Los Angeles where my dad and his brothers had grown up. I didn't follow any of it. Afterward I had a vague memory of airplanes, and stewardesses being nice to me. At some point someone gave me a stuffed raccoon.
Dad's explanation of what befell him back in Eugene was, if anything, less clear than his description of what had happened to me: he was arrested, charged, and spent some time in jail. Then his friends bailed him out while he was awaiting trial and, somehow, he ended up on probation. The whole process took several months. Then he had to find us a new place to live and deal with other hassles that arose from the arrest. That took a few more months.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jason’s memoir should be titled, A List of Things That Didn’t Put Me behind Bars, because after reading his memoir, Jason should be lucky he didn’t lose it. Jason’s ability to write down his daily life without all the negative emotions and baggage that came trampling along beside him was amazing. His father was candid and perhaps that helped Jason in his ability to tell it truthfully and not bitterly, his memoir was truly an eye-opener. According to his father, Jason was a “by-product of his parents attempt to be normal.” What a wonderful way for a child to think of himself in his informative years. Jason spends most of his childhood alone and in the front of the television, welcome to the 70’s. In the novel, we watch Jason as he deals with life and his part in it. His mother is no longer in the picture and his father slowly fades in and out as drugs consume him. His father seems to be searching for himself, always going after something else, never satisfied with what he has. I had that country song where the artist sings about always reaching for something we don’t have playing in the back of my head as I read this novel. Jason’s father is on the move, never content and he’s bringing Jason with him. During one sprint, the two of them move in with John and John watches Jason while his father goes to school. I really thought this relationship was special; John acted more like a father to Jason and they bonded. As they read books together, I hoping this relationship would last but of course, something else was in the cards. Jason was abused by his father and it amazed me how this treatment affected Jason. His classmates also abused him. Jason just couldn’t get a break. How he kept it all together, was beyond me. Jason lacked the skills for making friends and these individuals were the only people within his grasp that he could reach out to. This book was a remarkable memoir, it dealt with a variety of hard subject matter but it showed that the human spirit can overcome and be resilient. I will be rereading this novel again.